Double Take: Rosa Bonheur in the Eulabee Dix Gallery

NMWA staff recently reinstalled the Eulabee Dix Gallery “salon style” to display more of the museum’s collection. The gallery, now featuring more than 30 works, includes two paintings by the French Realist artist Rosa Bonheur—largely considered the most famous female painter of the 19th century.

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The recently reinstalled Eulabee Dix Gallery at NMWA includes two works by Rosa Bonheur; Photo: Lee Stalsworth

Defying Convention

Born in Bordeaux to minor landscape painter Raymond Bonheur and piano teacher Sophie Bonheur, Rosa Bonheur had an unusual upbringing. As an adult, she refused to marry, wore men’s clothing, studied animal anatomy in slaughterhouses, smoked cigars, and cut her hair short. She became a subject of public scrutiny—and sometimes ridicule.

Her remarkable career included many honors—she became the first woman to be awarded the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honour in 1865—as well as financial success, an impressive feat for an unmarried woman. Bonheur was able to earn enough as an artist to buy an estate near the Forest of Fontainebleau, where she resided first with her life-long companion, Nathalie Micas, and, after Micas’s death, American painter Anna Klumpke.

Rosa Bonheur, Untitled, n.d.; Gift of Roma Crocker in honor of her children. Conservation funds generously provided by the Mississippi State Committee of the National Museum of Women in the Arts

Rosa Bonheur, Untitled, n.d.; Gift of Roma Crocker in honor of her children. Conservation funds generously provided by the Mississippi State Committee of the National Museum of Women in the Arts

Animals Abound

One work by Bonheur currently on view in the Eulabee Dix Gallery is an untitled oil sketch of horses on a green background. Bonheur’s artistic process involved carefully working on form and composition in multiple sketches before beginning to paint. This work on paper shows the same beauty and commitment to realistic animal anatomy as the artist’s larger paintings, and gives a fascinating look into a less visible stage of her creative process.

Another work, Sheep by the Sea (1865), is a small oil painting depicting a flock of sheep reclining peacefully beside a body of water. The brightly lit scene shows no sign of human encroachment, instead offering an image of the animals in a pristine natural habitat.

A closer look reveals Bonheur’s incredible skill and attention to detail, evident in the tactile quality of the sheep’s wooly coats as well as their believably-rendered bodies—the product of detailed anatomical studies and careful planning. Sheep by the Sea was originally commissioned by Empress Eugénie of France and became part of her collection after being exhibited at the Salon of 1867.

Rosa Bonheur is fascinating both as an artist and a figure in women’s history. Visit NMWA during weekday hours to see some of her work, and more art by women, in the Eulabee Dix Gallery.

The Eulabee Dix Gallery is located on the fourth floor of the National Museum of Women in the Arts, open to visitors Monday through Friday, 10 a.m.–5 p.m.

—Kait Gilioli is the summer 2016 publications and communications/marketing intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

On View: Salon Style in the Eulabee Dix Gallery

Like many museums, NMWA is only able to show a small portion—perhaps 3%—of its collection at any given time. Many objects stay safely tucked away in storage until curators select them for display. In an effort to place more of NMWA’s collection on view to the public, the staff recently reinstalled the Eulabee Dix Gallery, located on the museum’s fourth floor, “salon style.” Open to the public during weekday hours, this gallery now showcases an array of landscapes, interior scenes, portraits, and still lifes.

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NMWA’s Eulabee Dix Gallery before (left) and after re-installation (right)

The new salon-style installation—a selection of artworks of varying sizes, with mismatched frames, arranged in a crowded manner—allows the museum to exhibit more of its smaller paintings. For years there were fewer than a dozen paintings in the gallery. The recent reinstallation enables NMWA to exhibit more than 30 works, some of which have not been seen by the public in over a decade. Visitors can rediscover treasures from the museum’s collection and encounter new favorites.

Jane Peterson, Tower Bridge, ca. 1907; NMWA, Gift of Alice D. Kaplan

Jane Peterson, Tower Bridge, ca. 1907; NMWA, Gift of Alice D. Kaplan

Landscape paintings in the gallery depict scenes as varied as Jessey Dorr’s Lone Cypress (1906), which shows a tree overlooking a waterside cliff, Grandma Moses’s Calhoun (1955), a farm scene awash in yellows, and Gabriele Münter’s view of a mountain lake, Staffelsee in Autumn (1923).

Two paintings by Jane Peterson (1876–1965) are on view, a sunny Beach Scene (ca. 1935) and a watery, shadowed Tower Bridge (ca. 1907). In Tower Bridge, Peterson evokes misty London, with a nearby dock and distant bridge rising above the water.

Two works are on view by French painter Suzanne Valadon (1865–1938). Nude Arranging Her Hair (ca. 1916) exemplifies Valadon’s style: rich colors, dark outlines, textiles, and simplified forms, with an awkwardly posed subject.

Suzanne Valadon, Nude Arranging Her Hair, ca. 1916; Oil on canvas board, 41 ¼ x 29 ⅝ in.; Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay

Suzanne Valadon, Nude Arranging Her Hair, ca. 1916; Oil on canvas board, 41 1/4 x 29 5/8 in.; Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay

Valadon had no formal training—instead, she grew up in Montmartre and modeled for painters. She learned from the artists around her, including friend and mentor Edgar Degas, and successfully transitioned from model into artist. Valadon also painted floral still lifes. Her Bouquet of Flowers in an Empire Vase (1920), also on view, features her vibrant color palette, strong outlines, and palpable brushwork.

There are more still lifes to discover in the gallery, including two by Dutch painter and botanical illustrator Alida Withoos (ca. 1661–1730). She emphasized flowers’ growth and gave them a naturalistic appearance. Arrangements of cultivated flowers appear to grow from the earth, accentuated by blades of grass and a frog near the bottom.

With the new installation of the Eulabee Dix Gallery, visitors have the opportunity to encounter more work by women artists at NMWA, exploring the abundant details of these paintings and their salon-style neighbors.

The Eulabee Dix Gallery is located on the fourth floor of the National Museum of Women in the Arts, open to visitors Monday through Friday, 10 a.m.–5 p.m.

—Catherine Bade is the registrar and Elizabeth Lynch is the editor at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.